Since the month before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Ukrainian officials and members of parliament from various factions have been traveling to Washington, struggling to build bridges to the new president. They’ve been lobbying for business or political deals with the White House, and some of these hush-hush arrangements have led to a subpoena from special counsel Robert Mueller, while others have undermined his investigations.
One of those called before a grand jury earlier this month is former Ukrainian member of parliament Andrii Artemenko, who talked to The Daily Beast from Washington. Artemenko would not discuss his testimony, but the former member of the Russian parliament presumably is of interest to Mueller because he met in New York in January 2017 with Trump’s personal lawyer and “fixer,” Michael Cohen.
Artemenko’s professed reason for the encounter then, as now, was to propose a deal to end the war in Ukraine. Indeed, Artemenko tells The Daily Beast he thinks his role as a would-be peacemaker will go down in history. “The one who finds a way to fix a peace deal between Russia and the Ukraine will be considered the nation’s leading figure and win the presidential election next year.”
By some accounts, Cohen left the plan in the office of Trump’s then-national security adviser Michael Flynn (since indicted by Mueller), but Cohen has said he tossed it in the trash.
However that may be, Artemenko’s meeting with Cohen is viewed in a new light following recent revelations about the hundreds of thousands of dollars that others paid to Trump’s lawyer in hopes they would influence the president.
Suspicions about the true nature of the Artemenko meeting are heightened by the fact that convicted felon and longtime Trump associate Felix Sater helped to set it up.
For the record, Artemenko’s peace plan, on its face, was implausible, and questions remain about whether the Kremlin had a hand in it. Artemenko says no, that he and supporters, including Vasyl Filipchuk, the former director of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry’s department of policy and security, had pulled together ideas in 2016 for how best to settle the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
Ukraine, they suggested, should lease Crimea to Russia, even though two years earlier Moscow had claimed the strategic peninsula in the Black Sea as sovereign territory and annexed it altogether. In return, Russia supposedly would stop supporting militias fighting in Donbass. But the so-called Artemenko Plan did not end there. It also revealed details about Ukraine’s corruption that tended to discredit President Petro Poroshenko.
Ukraine’s leadership branded Artemenko’s peace plan as treason. Kyiv took away his Ukrainian citizenship (he has a Canadian passport as well) and put legal pressure on his allies.
But Artemenko says he’s unreprentant about any of this. “As far as I know, I was the only Ukrainian politician who met with Trump’s lawyer, Cohen,” Artemenko told The Daily Beast. “I offered a peace deal for Ukraine and Russia, which I am happy to tell Mueller’s people about now. My future depends on how much truth is highlighted by this probe.”
Artemenko’s next session with Mueller’s probe is scheduled for June 1. But it is doubtful the special counsel is interested in Artemenko’s peace initiative. More likely he is focused on the circumstances of the Cohen meeting. Artemenko told The Daily Beast he used two contacts to make his way to Trump’s lawyer. One was Felix Sater, Trump’s very shady associate, and the other was the late Alex Oronov, a Ukrainian-born millionaire with strong links to Trump and to Cohen.
“Oronov, the father-in-law of Cohen’s brother, died soon after the scandal around our unpopular peace plan,” said Artemenko. “His health failed as a result of the pressure.”
The director general of the Interfax-Ukraine news agency, Oleksandr Martynenko, says all these efforts by Ukrainian lobbyists and influence peddlers knocking at Cohen’s door are useless if the intention really was to end the war in Donbass.
“There is absolutely zero chance to get any peace deals fixed with Russia now, before next year’s presidential elections in Ukraine,” Martynenko told The Daily Beast. “Cohen was buying air and all these traveling bridge builders coming from Kyiv were selling him air.”
Meanwhile, allegations have surfaced about the lengths that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s people may have gone to seek Cohen’s help influencing Trump.
Last week the BBC, citing anonymous sources, reported that two Ukrainian intermediaries had paid Cohen at least $400,000 to make a June 2017 meeting between Poroshenko and Trump appear a substantive one. But the allegation struck many Ukrainians as strange.
“We expected that Poroshenko would meet with Trump last June, as it was well known that Trump’s meeting with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was coming up in July,” Nataliya Gumenyuk, the head of the Ukrainian news outlet hromadske.ua, told The Daily Beast. “Cohen might have put a word in but, frankly, it should have been the State Department and not Cohen to argue that Trump could not avoid meeting with Poroshenko while planning a meeting with Putin.”
If the alleged payment was made to Cohen by people acting on Poroshenko’s behalf, it may have had other purposes than extending the presidential encounter from a photo op to a formal meeting, as the BBC suggested. But what those purposes would be, precisely, remains unknown.
In any case, the Ukrainian leadership was furious with the BBC report. The press service of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine insisted that the allegations in the article were “a blatant lie, slander and fake.” The official statement said that the disinformation published by BBC was part of “a fake news campaign” aimed to discredit Ukraine-U.S. relations. The Ukrainian leadership demanded a retraction of the story: “In case this does not happen, we reserve our right to file a lawsuit in court.”
But however the Trump-Poroshenko meeting was arranged, the result seems to have benefitted both—to the detriment of Mueller’s efforts to uncover the truth about collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
For almost two years international media have been investigating the complicated chain of relationships Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs and politicians have with Donald Trump’s friends, business partners, and associates, especially longtime political operative Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager.
In August 2016, at the height of the U.S. presidential campaign, Ukraine investigators produced evidence that Manafort had received millions of dollars as a consultant to Putin’s ally Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president deposed by a popular uprising in early 2014. That evidence has played a significant role in Mueller’s indictment of Manafort for money laundering, among other crimes.
In March this year, The Daily Beast reported the investigation in Ukraine of Manafort’s case had been frozen after Trump met with Poroshenko. And today Ukraine’s public opinion is split about whether to pursue the Manafort investigation.
Some argue that with the fighting continuing in eastern regions, Ukraine needs American anti-tank weapons and the survival of the country is more important than finding the truth about corruption among key members of Trump’s team. Others say Ukraine’s international reputation and the principles embraced by millions of Ukrainians during pro-European Maidan revolution in 2014 are more important than today’s partnership with the Trump administration.
“I wish we had clarity in public opinion about the unacceptable approach the Ukrainian Presidential Administration has chosen, blaming others for various mistakes, as if the president is a holy cow,” Tatiana Bezruk, an independent writer and observer for Open Democracy told The Daily Beast on Thursday.
Allegations of secret deals and huge amounts of money passing between Kyiv and Washington leave many Ukrainians wondering if the country is still run according to backroom deals by wealthy oligarchs—a style of governance, they note, not very different from what goes on in the White House.
In the same way that many Americans fear Trump wants to silence free media, many Ukrainians are also concerned by Poroshenko’s threat to sue the BBC for its reporting.
“Ukrainian authorities constantly push citizens to the choice between our democratic freedoms and security,” says Bezruk. “But in reality it turns out that we are choosing between Poroshenko’s personal security and our democracy.”
According to the BBC report, Trump’s lawyer Cohen received from $400,000 to $600,000 to organize a sit-down meeting with Trump.
Last fall, many of Poroshenko’s critics gave mocking predictions for the outcome of the presidential trip to Washington, being sure that Trump would not find more than 10 minutes for Ukraine. Naturally, President Poroshenko, whose popularity rate was trailing behind his main competitor Yulia Tymoshenko, must have been desperate to have the U.S. back a full-scale meeting with the U.S. leader and eventually, agree to bring American anti-tank rockets home.
Although the BBC report did not reveal any names of sources, it included a number of important details. One of the report’s sources described a back channel established between President Poroshenko and President Trump through a mediator, who was using personal contacts in Chabad, a Jewish charity in New York state.
“Look, I am not surprised that somebody gave money to Cohen—that is how they are used to fixing things here in Kyiv,’’ Interfax editor Martynenko told The Daily Beast. “But I am not sure they needed any Ukrainian intermediaries—the administration must have organized the meeting with Trump through their American lobby company, BGR Group Consulting firm.”
Former OSCE spokesman in Ukraine, Michael Bociurkiw believed that Ukraine deserved to know the truth about the deals politicians and authorities made with the White House; and that by threatening independent press authorities damaged their own image: “Ukrainian administration’s denial looks as if it is out of Trump’s own play book—to accuse free press is not the way to go, though it fits the pattern: the society already has questions for Poroshenko about his secret Christmas vacation to Maldives, Panama Papers showing Poroshenko registering a company during the war, the lack of reforms, no fight against corruption.”